Post oil: Glimpses of life after fossil fuel
Contentious debates about "peak oil" aside, imagining how the world looks post oil is increasingly easy as alternatives to fossil fuel develop rapidly.
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And to Margonelli, at least, the Arab Spring suggests energy-rich regimes may suddenly see the wisdom of sharing the wealth domestically. "[Y]ou already see the beginnings of the next thing," she says. "The question is ... how do the dominoes hit each other as we go forward."Skip to next paragraph
There are more concrete questions at hand as Americans imagine that way forward. Do we plug in our cars or feed them beets? Do we even still drive? Do we power our iPods by walking down the street, or cook dinner with stored solar energy? Not all of these scenarios are about oil substitution – none of us today toasts up a grilled cheese sandwich over a gasoline fire – but in the energy sector, the focus is broadly on alternative fuels, not just on oil replacements.
"The scenarios differ a lot depending on what the actual trigger is for the move away from fossil fuels," explains Patrick Tucker, spokesman for the World Future Society. "With mass depletion of oil, you get a price explosion, and this would have a really different effect than if we're able to move transitionally from oil as a result of application of sound technology."
That technology is exploding across the alternative energy sector. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two architecture students sought to capture the energy released when people walk, jump, or run, hoping to recycle it for use in small electronic devices. The state of California is considering research on converting traffic vibrations into bankable electrical energy. Mr. Tucker expects a breakthrough within 20 years.
Other changes are closer at hand. Companies like NatureWorks in Minnesota and Telles in Massachusetts already use plant sugars to make everything from drinking bottles to diapers, pioneering biodegradable bases for otherwise petroleum-intensive plastics. Companies are discovering how to power cars with algae and air. Boeing jets using a mix of traditional fuel and biofuel have flown cargo across the Atlantic and passengers within Europe.
In those cases, the biggest change – what runs the engine – isn't necessarily visible. In other cases, the oil-conscious choice is much more noticeable. Take Google's "driverless" car, for example. Navigated by computers, which are much more efficient drivers than lead-footed humans, the cars have zipped quietly but successfully along California roads. This year, Google lobbied the Nevada Legislature to pass bills that would allow self-driving cars on public roads.